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by: Scott Renshaw

"Get ready to root for the bad guy" trumpets the tag line for PAYBACK, and for once the marketing people are on to something. Lots of action films go the anti-hero route, offering protagonists with single-sentence motivations who kill at least as many people as the ostensible villains of the piece. The assumption is that we'll be on the side of the star because...well, he's a star. It doesn't matter how nasty or brutal Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steven Seagal get -- if they're the first name on the marquee, they're the ones whose gunplay and fisticuffs are cheered.

Mel Gibson is a different case entirely. There has always been something genuinely unstable behind his eyes when he wants there to be -- MAD MAX, the original LETHAL WEAPON, CONSPIRACY THEORY -- but also something genuinely wounded that makes his instability as sympathetic as it is menacing. Gibson uses that persona to solid effect as Porter, a career thief in single-minded pursuit of revenge. It seems that Porter was double-crossed by his partner Val (Gregg Henry) after a $140,000 heist, shot and left for dead so Val could square a debt with his organized crime bosses. Five months later, Porter is healed and determined to recover his share of the loot, even if it means taking on the sociopathic Val, corrupt cops, the Chinese mafia and Val's bosses in The Outfit.

Along the way to his goal, Porter encounters plenty of intriguing characters, which is half the fun of PAYBACK. Lucy Liu (from TV's "Ally McBeal") dives into the role of a dominatrix who really enjoys her work; James Coburn steals his few scenes as a dapper mid-level crime boss; Kris Kristofferson uses his rasp-and-squint to appropriate effect as The Outfit's capo di tutti capi. PAYBACK works in large part because it's not just Mel Gibson running around shooting and getting shot at. The whole atmosphere of the film is bleak and corrupt, from Ericson Core's bleached cinematography to the cold brick of Richard Hoover's production design. Though it comes with a dose of humor, it's usually humor of the black variety, and the film rarely strays far from pulp crime thriller territory.

That includes plenty of violence, of course, which is really the main place where PAYBACK grows wearying. There's violence, and then there's violence, and then there's PAYBACK, which never shies away from the roughest rough stuff from the opening scene of un-anesthetized surgery. Where a slap might suffice, a pistol-whipping shows up instead; where you might expect a good old-fashioned roughing up, you can count on the strategic application of a sledgehammer. Porter's world is certainly a brutal one, and Porter himself is a brutal guy, but after a while it all starts to feel like overkill. You reach the point where you don't need to see Val beat up a woman and shoot a dog to figure out that he's not too nice a guy.

Fortunately, it all comes back to Gibson, whose monomania about his $70,000 makes just enough sense to keep the plot moving. There's a bit too much effort directed towards making Porter seem sensitive through his relationship with a high-priced call girl (Maria Bello) -- apparently the result of Gibson's initial dissatisfaction with director and co-writer Brian Helgeland's relentlessly dark tone -- but it all seems like unnecessary effort. PAYBACK only works as entertainment because Gibson himself conveys all the reason we need to get behind Porter. If you can get past all the bloodshed and brutality, you'll find a surprisingly slick and surprisingly smart action thriller in PAYBACK. The amazing thing is that, by all rights, you shouldn't be able to get past it. Credit Gibson for giving us the kind psycho you can't help cuddling up to.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 dark Porters: 7.


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